Dec 28, 2016 | 01:08 GMT

6 mins read

For China, Cooperation Is Power

(STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

For those who gauge China's aspirations in near-Earth space as well as cyberspace, it has been a busy 48 hours. Beijing yesterday released a white paper outlining its strategies to develop China's space program, setting out its goals for the next five years. Today, it released another strategy outline, this one on global information and network security. Both Chinese plans highlight, in their individual ways, the strategy Beijing will pursue to increase its global leadership in these pivotal realms, among others, while challenging the dominance of the United States and its allies in driving international cooperation.

China's outer space plans follow an expected trajectory, which includes the continued development of heavy-launch vehicles and the extension of Beijing's ability to stage human spaceflight in support of a permanent space station. The imperative to construct and launch satellites for China's BeiDou Navigation Satellite System remains unchanged. Other stated goals indicate the extent of China's ambitions beyond Earth orbit: Missions to retrieve samples from the Moon and an aspiration to make the first dark-side landing are bold, but China also has clear plans for an extended Mars mission.

While many of these goals point to the continued development of a competitive space program, the strategy paper highlights the importance of private investment — including foreign capital — in China's space sector. A related press conference outlined the significance of bilateral and multilateral cooperation in areas such as the Belt and Road Initiative Space Information Corridor, which offers partners in China's international infrastructure project a chance to use its space resources, including the BRICS remote-sensing satellite constellation. For China, these partnership policies follow a much broader strategy: Beijing hopes to use close collaboration across the breadth of its programs to change the way that global cooperation works. There is a perception that the United States is about to embark on a period of retrenchment from international affairs to focus on domestic issues under the administration of President-elect Donald Trump. If the United states shifts its focus away from large-scale programs, Beijing sees an opportunity to possibly displace Washington in certain areas.

Among China's core imperatives are the use of its space program to achieve military, political and scientific objectives. Primary outcomes include bolstering military capabilities through research into dual-use technologies — such as improving rocket science to help support its missile programs — and the development of space-based systems that also have military applications, such as the BeiDou navigation system. More important from a military perspective, the ability to develop these technologies independently gives Beijing access to them without having to partner with the United States or its core allies.

But at the same time, China recognizes that it can use its emerging leadership in space technology to employ civil space cooperation as a means to bring other countries under its wing. This is particularly true among countries in the developing world that do not have easy access to space technologies but cannot necessarily afford to partner with U.S. or European space efforts as closely. The Belt and Road space and BRICS satellite projects are key components of this strategy. The more extensive programs of foreign partnerships can also lead private companies that want to work with China to lobby for changing the Wolf Amendment in the United States, which bars NASA scientists from working with China.

In addition to its white paper on space, China also issued a paper summarizing its strategy on cybersecurity and the protection of information in which it called for global cooperation to prevent a cyberwar. For China, the goal is a more closely managed internet rather than one that has few boundaries and more open cooperation. But the global consensus on how to manage cybersecurity and associated relations has changed significantly — at least publicly — since the Edward Snowden leak of National Security Agency data three years ago. The European Union is continuing to develop its Digital Single Market to enhance bloc-wide cybersecurity and more forcefully protect data privacy for its citizens. China and Russia have been working increasingly closely over the past two years, and earlier this year called for a "new global order" for cyberspace. China is now helping Russia replicate elements of its Great Firewall in Russia in a project dubbed the Red Web. As concerns over data protection and internet security continue to grow, Beijing will maintain its strategy of trying to steer global cybersecurity policies and platforms toward a climate of relative nonintervention when it comes to individual countries' policies. It will also continue its pursuit of dividing up the systems that make up the internet to help Beijing maintain its grip on internal cybersecurity and information dissemination within China. 

In almost every area of global cooperation, China's massive heft makes it a force that cannot be easily ignored. In space, China can entice cooperation from smaller participants by offering access to its program. In cyberspace, foreign companies simply cannot afford to ignore the opportunities offered by the second-largest economy in the world and the largest growing market for the internet and other information and communications technologies, even if they must abide by the terms imposed by China.

Beyond those areas, China's strategies in other spheres of international cooperation exhibit the same characteristics. It is now attempting to assume a greater leadership role in the global response to climate change. Beijing is also attempting to break down Western hegemony in the global financial system. China does not necessarily seek to replace the United States and other world leaders in those fields, but rather steer the debate away from what it sees as dominance by Washington and its allies.

China's emerging global requirements and involvements leave Beijing two choices: either take a stronger leadership role in shaping the international environment or adhere to the U.S.-based system — an option it cannot accept. China is currently seeking to claim a global leadership role at a relatively low cost. Whereas most previous global powers have had to fight physically to reach a position of leadership, or have it conferred on them. Beijing is seeking to avoid the work involved with military action but still gain the political and economic influence of the reward, much as the United States attempted to do in the 1800s when it sought to benefit from the European colonial system without the cost of creating its own colonial empire.

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